My ship, the ship of my origin, didn’t come in. I went to her. Her name is the RMS Queen Mary and when I first set foot on her in 2004, I felt an awareness of my mother’s footsteps on the planks of her deck.
The Queen Mary has been permanently docked in Long Beach, California, since 1967. But in January of 1950, the ship was making a turbulent Atlantic crossing from Cherbourg to New York City with war brides onboard, my mother among them. Now 54 years later, I was on the historic ship to participate in a ball being held there as part of a week of vintage dancing sponsored by the San Diego Vintage Dance Society.
Nothing moves vintage dancers so much as being able to dance at a historic venue. We were so enthralled dancing in the Queen’s Salon on the ship, when the ball ended, several of us didn’t want to leave. And the Queen Mary, existing at the time as a hotel, gave us the opportunity to impulsively indulge our desires. We booked staterooms on the spur of the moment and stayed the night. I spent the remainder of that night and the following morning walking through the ship’s corridors and promenade decks. I was inside the great ocean liner that represents a link to my very existence. I wanted to explore her more the next day. I wanted to find the cabin my mother was in during her five-day trip to her new life in the United States. But, time would not permit it and by midday, we had to disembark. I vowed someday to return.
I got that chance in 2011. Sheryl and I had moved to the San Francisco bay area two years prior and the San Diego Vintage Dance Society sponsored another event on the Queen Mary. This time it was an entire week devoted to dancing, socializing, and sleeping onboard the ship. It was my opportunity to explore my personal link to the ocean liner and learn some of her illustrious history.
Vintage dancing was born through the efforts a handful of dance historians who envisioned creating conference events for dance teachers who wanted to learn popular dancing from the 19th and early 20th centuries. And while learning these dances, why not hold a few balls to practice them? And why not do so in period attire? Thus, began a 42-year dance craze that grew into a community of dance teachers and dance enthusiasts with a historical bent who love to dress up. So, when a week of vintage dancing on the Queen Mary was held, vintage dancers came in droves!
Sheryl and I, along with friends of many years, attended the event. We boarded the Queen Mary, just as passengers did in years past, through its main gangway door. Once settled into our staterooms, we “embarked” – not to sea, but to the past decades of the early 20th Century. With so many of us in period attire, it truly felt like we had traveled back in time to the heyday of the grand ocean liners. With imagination and a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, it became possible to experience what it was like to cross the Atlantic on the great ship.
In between dances in the ship’s elegant salons and social gatherings in the Observation Bar Lounge, I explored the ship, learning what I could from tours and taking photos at every opportunity. I asked the Captain (Yes, the ship does have a Captain) about where my mother’s cabin would be. She was most likely in Second Class. He told me that my mother’s cabin was no longer accessible to the public. Indeed, all of Second Class and Steerage had been closed and much of it converted to service the ship as a hotel.
The Queen Mary is an Art Deco dream. Everywhere you look, there are light fixtures, furnishings, and decorative elements that represent the height of the Art Deco movement. It is a ship furnished in many beautiful woods – 56 of them in fact, six of which are now extinct. She had many notable passengers in her glorious days crossing the Atlantic. During WWII, she served as a troop transport for American GIs. Painted completely grey to camouflage her from German U-boats, she became known as “the gray ghost” in honor of having succeeded in making multiple crossings through hostile waters unscathed.
The big event of the week was the formal ball in the Grand Salon, the original 1st Class dining room. It’s the largest and grandest room on the ship, soaring up three decks with large fluted columns around the dance floor. The band was Mora’s Modern Rhythmists. Dean’s band performs music from the 20s and 30s so well, they could have been transported directly from the era. But with everyone dressed in formal attire and the outside world obscured behind Art Deco walls, we were the ones being transported to the ship’s glorious days and nights crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
I took a video of the orchestra performing Singin’ in the Rain for the dancers. It turned out to be an appropriate representation of what might have happened on the ship in the 1930s. The famous song, Singin’ in the Rain, was composed and performed in the Hollywood Review of 1929. It would likely have been performed during the 1930s to bring passengers hope in the midst of the Great Depression.
After the 2011 dance week, we returned to the ship two more times for Art Deco weekends sponsored by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. Each time, we enjoyed the ship and the feeling of being transported back to the Art Deco era. But, the events were changing in nature. The last evening of the last weekend we attended was more of a raucous heavy drinking event with younger people invited in who sought only a chance to party hard. The charm was lost and the weekend descended into typical LA sleaze. Sheryl and I left before the night ended, as did many of our friends. It was no longer fun.
After the last event we attended, it became apparent that the ship had been mismanaged for years through a complex saga of successive and sometimes corrupt leaseholders. By 2017, engineers reported that ocean liner was in danger of sinking it its own port from disrepair. Then in 2020, the pandemic closed down all access to the ship. Fortunately, the City of Long Beach won back control of the Queen Mary in 2021and repairs began. She reopened this year, 2023, for limited tours. But long term financial viability remains a huge challenge in the face of so many setbacks.
The future the Queen Mary is uncertain. No doubt, mismanagement has damaged preservation of the ship. But, I think there are larger issues behind why she remains in danger. We have moved into a time when younger generations of parents and their children don’t show interest historic sites, at least not enough to support them. The next generations appear to have lost their ability to simply enjoy a place for its own intrinsic beauty and history. History, artistry, and engineering are not enough. Venues have to provide constant indulgences in thrill seeking, rides for the kids, glitzy oversexed stage shows, technological shock and awe, or gambling to hold their interest. Worst of all, a movement has formed to cancel any historical site as an artifact of social injustice and sacrifice it on the altar of the new secular religion of “Change.” Along with those cancelled sites, the movement’s mandate of Presentism will cancel all of our ancestors who “should have known better.” I am reminded of Marcus Tillius Cicero who is quoted for having said:
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Have we now become a nation of grown children who revel only in what’s new and enjoy only what thrills? Will history, with all of its discomforts, be filtered into only what is acceptable to the current narrative? Will the coming generations be forced to face a world in which the hard lessons from history are lost, bringing back horrors from past that did not have to return?
I fear the Queen Mary may go the way of many great historic hotels, theaters, and trains. So many are gone, reduced to rubble and scrap or abandoned to slow decay, visited only by young urban explorers who make online video logs of their exploits, most of whom don’t know what they’re looking at. It saddens me to think that this fate may await the Queen Mary. She deserves to be preserved to honor those who served on her and the many who sailed on her as passengers. Yes, many were celebrities, stars, and politicians, on holiday. But many more were ordinary people who needed to cross the Atlantic at a profound time of their lives – some to reunite with loved ones, some to go to war, some to return from war, and some, like my mother, to start a hope filled new life in America. My hope for the Queen Mary is that she will survive, standing in port as a living monument to those people so the remembrance of their lives is not lost to time.
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Photographs of our travels in time onboard the RMS Queen Mary
The Queen Mary's starboard lifeboats in 2013. Sadly, mismanagement and neglect of the ship caused all of the lifeboats to become unsalvageable. In 2019, all of her lifeboats had to scrapped. It's a great loss to maritime history. There are very few ocean liners left, if any, that still have their lifeboats intact and on the davits.
Sheryl and me with friends on the port side promenade deck on the Queen Mary in 2013. The photo behind of us is a snapshot of Fred Astaire taken on the Queen Mary. -- Photo by Laura Cottril of Laura Cottril Photography.
British commercial artist, lettering designer, mural painter and architect MacDonald Gill created this mural for the Queen Mary in 1936. It features two tracks cut into the Atlantic Ocean that represent the courses of the Queen Mary and sister ship, Queen Elizabeth, which sailed in opposite directions. A crystal toy ship representing each would ride the track to indicate position. When the ships came alongside each other, passengers would rush to the deck to wave to the Queen Elizabeth.